Jake Manna found an autistic girl while working on solar panels
The autistic girl had apparently escaped from his yard around noon, he said, and had been missing for about 15 minutes. Neighbors who checked their home security camera footage reported seeing her jump in their yard.
When Manna saw people on the street looking for the missing child in their garden and garage, he stopped what he was doing and stepped in to help.
It occurred to him and a few others that the girl might have gone to a wooded area that surrounds the neighborhood.
“There are a lot of trails and nobody was looking down there,” said Manna, 20, from Hanover, Mass., about 16 miles away.
He and a man who lives down the street decided to go to the wooded area and split up to search for the girl, he said.
Manna passed a “trail closed” sign and walked the path for about 10 or 15 minutes, looking left and right for any sign of the child. Near the end of the trail, he said, he saw water through the trees.
“I ran up to him and saw there was a stream, and I saw a T-shirt and a diaper floating in it,” he said. “My heart collapsed.”
Manna, a former lifeguard, said he thought the girl may have drowned. He ran into the stream to look for her and ended up in a swamp. There was a naked child wading in it.
“She was playing in the water, and it was up to her waist,” he recalled. “I called her, but I didn’t want to shout, because I thought it would scare her. She was walking towards deeper water which was about 10 feet away, so I told her to stop.
When the girl didn’t listen to him, Manna said, he quickly took off his shoes and socks and walked towards her. She was about 30 feet away, he said.
“It was a real muddy swamp – my feet started to sink into the bottom like [it was] quicksand,” he said. “When I reached her, I grabbed her by the armpits, held her as high as I could and pulled her down.”
The child did not cry or make noise of any kind, Manna said.
The neighbor he was looking with heard him calling the girl and rushed down the path to help her.
“I gave it to him and he held her like a baby and brought her back to the neighborhood,” Manna said, noting that someone had given the girl a life jacket and a towel to wear while everything the world awaited the arrival of the mother.
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“When the mum saw us, she ran towards us, grabbed the girl and went to the ground with her to hug her for as long as possible, probably 30 minutes,” he said. “She was quite emotional, as you can imagine, and she was grateful that we found her.”
By then the police had arrived, Manna said, so he returned to his job, where he was meeting with a building inspector.
“I was just really happy to be able to help reunite the girl with her mother, and I thought that was it,” he said.
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The child could have drowned if Manna had not found her, said Captain Jason Higgins of the Plymouth Police Department.
“She’s autistic and non-verbal, and the swamp led to deeper waters,” he said. “The officers who responded to the scene immediately realized that Jake is quite a special young man. He had dropped what he was doing to go get her.
The day after the rescue, Plymouth Police presented Manna with a certificate of appreciation and a coin with the department badge to thank him for his swift actions.
“If he hadn’t gone this route and seen the missing clothes, we hate to think what the outcome would have been,” read a Facebook post from Plymouth Police about the rescue.
“This girl had a guardian angel yesterday…and his name was Jake,” Officer Vinnie Roth wrote on the Facebook post. He was one of the first officers to answer the call at Buttermilk Bay.
The accolades continued in Manna’s hometown, where he was honored by the Hanover Select Board on July 18 for bringing the child to safety.
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“Jake is a quiet and modest but confident young man,” Hannover city manager Joseph Colangelo said. “Everyone in Hannover is proud of him.”
Manna, a 2020 graduate from high school in Hannover, worked for several years as a lifeguard at a nearby summer camp. As part of this work, he often encountered children with special needs, he said.
“I learned to be a little more patient and understanding,” Manna said. “I enjoyed working with them and with children of all kinds.”
“Sometimes a child will have sensory issues with anything that touches their skin,” he added. “That’s what this little girl’s mother said about her after she was found. She has a wristband monitor that she always rips off.
The mother has asked that she and her daughter not be publicly identified. Manna said he hopes the mother isn’t too hard on herself.
“Things happen, and I would hate for her to think it was her fault,” he said.
Police found no evidence of parental neglect, Higgins said.
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“Although the mother does not want to speak [to the media], she is very grateful for the actions of Jake and the actions of the whole neighborhood, ”he said. “She knows it could have ended differently if Jake hadn’t found the right path.”
Manna said he was grateful for being careful on a hot summer day.
“I was in the right place at the right time,” he said. “If someone were to find her, I’m glad it was me.”
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